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This year, I challenged myself to read 60 books. While that does not seem like a lot (and really isn’t much), I remember scrambling to finish my 60th book last year before the clock struck twelve on December 31st. This year, I’ve managed to manage my time better and have made good progress towards my reading goals. Its May and I’ve already read 31 books.

This year, I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone and read books about people, places and things which haven’t featured much on my reading lists thus far. I ventured into Nordic crime fiction, which has been quite enjoyable. Watching the Icelandic movie Jar City, based on Arnaldur Indridason’s book of the same name (in English), kindled my curiosity about his other works of crime fiction that feature the cynical Detective Erlendur Sveinsson. The titles of his books, their covers, and his narrative, all conjure a picture of Icelandic landscape that is frigid, barren, desolate and very intriguing. Since then, I’ve read Silence of the Grave (2001) and, more recently, Hypothermia (2007). My standards for crime fiction are impossibly high – I’ve never met a book I’ve been compelled to rate with even 4.5 stars, and I’m always mildly disappointed by how the stories end. I find Indridason’s works entertaining enough to go back for more of them.

Entertaining enough, despite being distracted by his occasional quirky narrative.

Karen was aware of the mountain Grimannsfell to her right, although she couldn’t see it, and Skalafell to her left. Next she drove past the turning to Vindashlid where she had once spent a two-week summer holiday as a child. She followed the red tail lights at a comfortable speed until they drove down through the Kerlingarhraun lava field, and there their ways parted. The red lights accelerated and disappeared into the darkness. She wondered if they were heading for the pass at Uxahryggir and north over the Kaldidalur mountain road. She had often taken that route herself. It was a beautiful drive down the Lundarreykjadalur valley to Borgarfjordur fjord. The memory of a lovely summer’s day once spent at Lake Sandkluftavatn came back to her.

I urge you to try and actually read these words and not just skim through them.

For centuries the main inland route from Eskifjordur to the Fljotsdalsherad district used to pass across Eskifjordur Moor. There was an old bridleway that ran north of the Eskifjordur River, inland along the Langihryggur ridge, up the near side of the Innri-Steinsa River, through the Vinardalur valley and over the Vinarbrekkur slopes to Mindheidarendi, then up onto Urdarflot and along the Urdarklettur crags until it left the Eskifjordur area. To the north of this is the Theverardalur valley flanked by the mountains Andri and Hardskafi, with Holarfjall and Sedheidi beyond them to the north.

To the best of my knowledge, these sections add nothing to the story. What place do they have in a thriller that aspires to be ‘gripping’?

He and Eva Lind started at Lake Ellidavatn where a new suburb had sprung up, then did a circuit of Raudavatn on a decent road, before continuing to Reynisvatn which had now disappeared behind the new suburb of Grafarholt. From there they drove past Langavatn and had a view of numerous little lakes on Middalsheidi Moor before slowly proceeding to Mosfellsheidi. They inspected Leirvogsvatn beside the road to Thingvellir, followed by Stiflisdalsvatn and Mjoavatn. It was late by the time they descended to Thingvellir, turned north and passed Sandkluftavatn which lay beside the road north of Hofmannaflot on the route over the pass at Uxahryggir and down the Lundarreykjadalur valley. They picnicked beside Litla-Brunnavatn, just off the road to Biskupsbrekka.

A fair amount of searching on the internet reveals that most (all?) of these Icelandic landmarks are real and Indridason’s exact descriptions of them might trigger nostalgia or some such emotion in an Icelander. A non-Icelander like me can either skip these sentences entirely, or take the time to hazard guesses, such as, perhaps fjordur refers to a specific topographical feature (maybe not), dalur refers to a valley, and vatn to a body of water.

My 31st book this year was also Nordic crime fiction, by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo – The Redbreast (2000), part of the Harry Hole series. Hole, Nesbo’s detective, is a brilliant alcoholic, much younger than Detective Erlendur. The Redbreast is a rather long, fast-paced thriller, perfect movie material, and very engaging. Nesbo does not give us blow-by-blow accounts of Hole driving past various Norwegian landmarks, which is just as well. The Redbreast is part of a series, and does leave some loose threads, which should be resolved in its sequel(s). Currently, I am awaiting Headhunters (2008), a standalone novel also by Nesbo.

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Maisie Dobbs is a detective. So, I assumed that the eponymous Maisie Dobbs (2003) would be a suspense novel, and not totally without reason – the inner cover proclaims the novel to be of the genre ‘Fiction/Mystery’. Fiction it surely is, mystery – well, there is some mystery, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a mystery novel.

Maisie Dobbs belongs to a poor working class London family and loses her mother at thirteen. Her father, Frankie, fears that he may not be able to afford the education that his gifted daughter surely deserves, or care for her with his limited resources. He sends her to be a junior maid in the aristocratic household of Lord and Lady Compton. Maisie is the sort of child that some parents would be proud of – she is meticulous, hard working, responsible, compassionate, and empathetic. She is also rather strange – unnaturally intuitive and excessively serious – whose idea of fun is to wake up at three in the morning to read The Philosophical Works of David Hume. Lady Rowan Compton, whose philanthropic desires have conveniently been recently awakened by friend and accomplished private detective, Dr. Maurice Blanche, recognizes what a bright girl Maisie is and sets her up as a pupil of Dr. Blanche. Under his tutelage, Maisie is accepted at Cambridge in the autumn of 1914. The War interrupts her education, and Maisie trains at a nurse and serves at the Front in France. After the War, Maisie first works under Dr. Blanche and eventually sets up her own practice as an independent private investigator.

Maisie’s time as a housemaid has much of the upstairs-downstairs drama as in Downton Abbey, only without the scheming footmen and maids. This divide between the aristocratic class and the working class is often brought up in the story. For instance, Maisie is advised by her friend and fellow-maid, Enid, that

… there’s them upstairs, and there’s us downstairs. There’s no middle, never was. So the likes of you and me can’t just move up a bit, if that’s what you think.

When Maisie gains admission to Cambridge, her father is worried that

Maisie might not ever fit in to any station, that she would forever be betwixt and between.

Also noteworthy is that although Cambridge admitted women since the late nineteenth century, women weren’t awarded degrees until 1948. Maisie’s mentor Maurice Blanche expresses his desire for change when he says:

Of course, as I am male, a degree could be conferred upon me. But there will be a time, I hope before too long, when women will also earn degrees for their advanced academic studies.

Enid, Maisie’s friend, is shown to practice her English so as to sound of a higher social class than she actually is – poor working class. Do you remember Henry Higgins’ speech lessons to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady? Dropped aitches were an easy indicator of working class status – the upper class pronounced the ‘h’ sound in words that began with h, while the lower classes did not. And so, Enid practiced her h-ouse, h-ome and h-ope

…convinced that if she was to get anywhere in the world, she had to work quickly to introduce aitches into her spoken language.

Class differences aside, the novel is more about the devastation of war than about the exploits of a female super sleuth. In her dedication at the beginning of the book, author Jacqueline Winspear remembers her grandfather, who “sustained serious leg wounds”, and her grandmother, who was partially blinded, during the First World War. So, it’s not a surprise that the War is a theme throughout most of the book. More specifically, the book does not dwell as much on death and destruction, as on soldiers who suffered grievous facial wounds, and were unable to function fully in society:

With their damaged faces, once so very dear to a mother, father, or sweetheart, they were now reduced to gargoyles by a war that, for them had never ended. There were men without noses or jaws, men who searched for light with empty eye  sockets, men with only half a face where once a full-formed smile had beamed.

At the time of the War, plastic surgery was still, if not in infancy then perhaps in adolescence, and many men who suffered facial disfigurement wore tin masks to conceal their shattered faces. See this fascinating article in the Smithsonian Magazine about the physicians and artists at the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department. It also includes a video of a mask being fitted on a soldier.

Maisie, a nurse herself, is no stranger to these horrific injuries…

He lay with his profile to me,” wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. “Only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone.

– From the article in the Smithsonian Magazine

…or to standard protocol as to how not to express your distress at the sight of these gaping wounds…

Always look a man straight in the face,” one resolute nun told her nurses. “Remember he’s watching your face to see how you’re going to react.

In Sidcup, England… some park benches were painted blue; a code that warned townspeople that any man sitting on one would be distressful to view.

– From the article in the Smithsonian Magazine

Another tragic aspect of the war that plays an integral role in the plot is the execution of soldiers for desertion and cowardice. Many soldiers were accused of desertion, sentenced to death, and shot dead by their own people. Soldiers who refused to participate in this cruel exercise were likely to suffer the same fate for insubordination.

I am sure I would have enjoyed Maisie Dobbs tremendously while in high school. There is a romance, that I will not get into, which would certainly have appealed to my school-girl sensibilities. While I was certainly moved by the grim aspects of war, I did find the plot and the mystery (or mysteries) rather juvenile. And as for Maisie herself, I did not know what to make out of her. She’s an odd one, a good person to be sure, but very odd. I was also not impressed by the rather single-dimensional characters in the story – they’re all good-hearted and extremely helpful. Winspear might have done a good job describing the dark times of the War, but her characters are too forthcoming to be real.

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“I don’t understand. These were Jews escaping the Nazis? But – they were going to Shanghai?

“It was their only choice”

“What do you mean? I thought they went to other countries in Europe, or came here [United States of America].”

“Survivors did, after the war. But as the Nazis rose in the thirties, countries all over the world closed their doors. Everyone knew what was happening, but no government was willing to deal with a flood of desperate refugees.”

– From The Shanghai Moon (2009) by award-winning author S. J. Rozan

I would not have expected a lesson in world history, a tidbit that has escaped me entirely until now, from a mystery that involves a jewelry theft in New York City, but I’ve come to expect treats in unexpected places.

In Shanghai Moon, Lydia Chin and partner Bill Smith are private investigators, hired to recover jewelry that belonged to a young brother and sister who fled Austria for Shanghai in 1938. Chin and Smith’s mysterious Swiss Client informs them that the jewelry thief, a corrupt official from China, is in New York City, and is likely to sell the jewelry in Chinatown. While Chin (who is Chinese-American) and Smith navigate the crowded alleys of little China, a couple of people involved in the investigation turn up dead, and the duo realize they have something big on their hands. And that is the mystery they must solve.

Chinatown is described deliciously in the book which brought back memories of eating delicious, vegetarian, Cantonese grub on Mott Street, and looking for egg tarts and hand-pulled noodles in the area.  I found the plot complicated (in a good way), exciting, and just a little confusing and read the book from cover to cover in less than 24 hours. The denouement is reasonably satisfying, while the much of the story is told through letters and diary entries, that sound quite unnatural. And because there are so many of them, I found them a tad wearisome. But the detectives are spirited, and I did enjoy my introduction to the Chinese-American detective, and the cultural references that came with it. Also, a lot of history is interwoven into the plot, from the Japanese invasion, to the conflict between Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist troops and Mao Zedong’s Communist army, and the tumultuous climate that prevailed in Shanghai during those times.

Now, onto the history lesson. According to Encyclopedia of Diasporas: Immigrant and Refugee Cultures Around the World

From 1938 on, some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe, chiefly from Germany and Austria, escaped to Shanghai, the only place in the world that required no documents, such as visas, health certificates and financial statements.

What happened to them during the Japanese occupation of the city?

Under the pressure of Nazi Germany, the Japanese Authorities proclaimed, on 18 February 1943, the establishment of “the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Shanghai, ordering Jewish refugees who had arrived in Shanghai from Europe since 1937 to move into the area within a month…Confinement, poor diet and sanitation, in addition to restrictive methods of Japanese surveillance, put Jews in a difficult, unpredictable, dangerous and insufferable situation.

And? What happened when the War was over?

they were able to leave, and most made plans to go to another country to join their family or relatives. They had never planned to come to China in the first place, ending up there simply because they had no other choice. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, became their preferred destinations, but the door of most countries were not open to them. The founding of the State of Israel appeared to be an opportunity. In 1948, right after its establishment, Israel opened an office in Shanghai to welcome Jews to Israel, and about 10,000 Jews found a new home there.

There was Jewish presence in China much before theWar, and this continues today.

You learn something new everyday.

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“Cakes. Great fat profiteroles of oozing cream. Slices of neat chocolate, alternately white and dark, held together with the merest scattering of liqueur-soaked ratafia crumbs. Cauliflowers of green marzipan, the curd made from ground almonds bound with honey and rosewater. Squares of rich shortbread studded with almonds and smothered with fudge. Milk-feuille layered with freshly pureed raspberries instead of jam, and creme patissiere. Lemon and orange jumbles drenched in powdered sugar. Vanilla meringues supreme, moist little curls of chestnut puree peeping out. Frangipanes.” ( p. 194 of Written in Blood by Caroline Graham)

Poor Inspector Barnaby. I can imagine just how miserable he must have felt looking at this display, especially when he had toast with low-fat faux butter for breakfast. Barnaby is not extraordinarily eccentric, or charming, but he is clearly intelligent, not unkind, and has a certain appeal that is absolutely necessary for the (Inspector Barnaby) series to survive. He shares an amusing dynamic with his Deputy, Sergeant Gavin Troy, again an essential chemistry.

The setting is a village, Midsomer Worthy, and concerns its Writing Circle. This group of wannabe writers meet once a month at host Gerald Hadleigh’s place. This month, they have a celebrity guest, writer Max Jennings. Gerald, who we gather has some unpleasant association with Max in the past, is none too eager about the visit and asks Writing Circle member Rex to not leave him alone with Max. However, Max tricks the rest of the group into leaving and traps Gerald and himself alone in the former’s house. The next morning, Gerald is found dead.

Author, Catherine Graham, certainly succeeds in creating a compelling mystery – Gerald’s past is an enigma, the members of the writing circle are reminiscent of characters in Miss Marple mysteries (perhaps because the setting is so similar), the relationships are complex. There is oppression, unrequited love, loneliness, class consciousness and far too many secrets, far too many themes. The solution to the puzzle, though ingenious, seems a stretch and ‘over coincidental’.

Many of the whodunits I recently read have been impressively satisfying for about the first three-quarters of the book. They’ve been so good, that they were bad – they dragged me into ‘the great oblivion of the good mystery’, the kind that is responsible for unwashed laundry, undone dishes, missed gym appointments, staying up late, overeating or under eating, and a general state of pleasurable obliviousness. And then, the moment I’ve been waiting for arrives: the who, the how, the why and the when. And leaves me profoundly dissatisfied.

What makes a mystery great? Good writing? Great characters? The ability to create this great oblivion? How vital is the denouement? Can brilliant characterizations (as in Barbara Vine mysteries such as The Chimney-sweeper’s Boy and A Fatal Inversion) make up for conclusions that somehow fail to deliver? One mystery, which in my opinion, has a splendid denouement, is Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, where everything falls perfectly into place at the end, all the little pieces, and life makes sense.

And the search continues, for great plot lines, and satisfying finales.

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